'Teachers are flocking to teach overseas to escape a brutal accountability and inspection system'

The threat of losing half a million teachers abroad is less about the exciting prospect of international jet-set teaching, and more about the government's failings, says one leading headteacher

Bernard Trafford

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Another teacher recruitment crisis looms – or, perhaps, the same one made worse. To be fair, chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw predicted it some months back. It’s estimated that over the next 10 years some half a million UK teachers will be required to teach in British-style international schools overseas.

That sector is proving a great British export. Whatever our turmoil and travails back home, and however much we worry about our own national system, they can’t get enough of traditional UK education abroad. It’s not all about pretending to be like Eton, Harrow or any of the other great names: solid, traditional British-style, English-medium teaching, either leading to A levels or to the International Baccalaureate, is now what people want all over the world. Teachers will be needed.

So will these burgeoning overseas schools be attractive to British teachers? Undoubtedly. What’s not to like? They’re an attractive prospect, especially for young teachers. In general, the pay’s good, housing is provided cheaply or free, and it’s a great bit of life experience.

Will Sir Michael be proved correct? Will we find our own schools denuded of teachers as they all scramble abroad to get a bit of this exciting, international jet-set kind of teaching? We may.

We already face a teacher recruitment crisis. Government’s intense dislike of university departments has led to the somewhat chaotic pattern of teaching schools across the country. That’s something I’ve never understood, because I think in recent years university PGCE courses been turning out fantastic new teachers.

Many teaching schools are doing a great job: but government has devolved the training so far down the line that it seems to have no central grasp of supply and demand, of take-up, or even of whether (to take one crucial example) we’re producing enough maths teachers (we aren’t).

So does this make the international schools the villains of the piece? No. They’re a useful British export, and do our image no harm around the world. All the better if they encourage increasing numbers of overseas students to come to UK universities, a vital source of income despite the fact that the visa system is now so labyrinthine and hostile that it’s bound to deter many such applicants.

Besides, a bit of international experience would be fantastic for teachers returning home to continue and complete their careers in UK schools, enriched all the more by getting a sight of the world beyond the shores of our little country. No, a change is as good as a rest, and these teachers will come back from abroad refreshed and infinitely stimulated. They’ll be good for the teaching force.

'Government has ground the joy out of teaching'

There’s an elephant in the room, isn’t there? The threat of losing half a million teachers abroad is a significant one. And it is such a threat because government is failing on two counts. First, as I’ve written above, it’s failing to grasp and take action on the issue of supply and demand of teachers.

Second, and more damaging long-term, is government policy – heavy-handed, brutal accountability and a hostile inspection system which more often than not leave teachers feeling bullied and devalued, especially if heads under the relentless pressure of floor targets and their own accountability pass that pressure on to them. Teachers will surely see that spell abroad as a blessed relief from the grind of teaching in UK schools.

I never try to deter any potential teacher from entering the profession. It remains, despite the pressures, rewarding and generous, and a vital thing, a real vocation to open up life opportunities to the young, whatever the age-group we teach, whatever the setting or type of school.

But government has ground the joy out of it, replacing the pleasure with such a burden of accountability and relentless criticism that I can’t blame any teachers for reckoning the grass is very much greener – not on the other side of the fence, but beyond the sea or across the world.

This should be a good news story, one of both exporting the best of British and of giving our great teachers irreplaceable experience abroad.

But it has all the makings of a crisis. And government only has itself to blame.

Dr Bernard Trafford is headteacher of Royal Grammar School, Newcastle upon Tyne, and a former chairman of the HMC. The views expressed here are personal. He tweets at @bernardtrafford

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